Wednesday, July 08, 2009
Good, clean, clear tones
A while ago I saw the excellent filmic adaptation of J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace, and one scene in particular held me. The protagonist, David, is trying to write an opera about Lord Byron, and is sitting in the ugly, grey-walled courtyard of a pet shelter. The little homeless dog who has adopted him is sitting nearby, watching. The disgraced David is plucking at a banjo, composing, thinking. Some kids stick their faces over the wall and laugh. They might be laughing at him, or with him, or there might be something else going on.
I left the cinema and bought the book. It's a great book.
The banjo scene is different in the novel.
"Seated at his own desk looking out over an overgrown garden, he marvels at what the little banjo is teaching him... It is not the erotic that is calling to him after all, nor the elegaic, but the comic. He is in the opera neither as Teresa nor as Byron nor even as some blending of the two: he is held in the music itself, in the flat, tinny slap of the banjo strings, the voice that strains to soar away from the ludicrous instrument but is continually reined back in, like a fish on a line.
So this is art, he thinks, and this is how it does its work! How fascinating!"
In a letter to the Editor of "The Cadenza" magazine in August, 1901, some guy called Vess L. Ossman wrote:
"The banjo will live and become more popular every year, even if the whole world takes to golf and other games. Banjo music is to the ear what the sun breaking through the clouds on a dark day is to the eye; and to my mind there is nothing to replace the good, clean, clear tones of the banjo. This in defense of the banjo from one who loves the instrument".
I love the banjo too, now.
BUT: why the association of banjos and frogs? I've never thought about that. It predates Kermit by more than a century, at least. And I know there's a kind of frog known as the banjo frog (because of the banjo-like sound of its croak) but it seems to be native to Australia.
Perhaps I'll never know.